Hi-Lo Books for Struggling Middle School Readers

I do not believe in policing kids’ reading levels. I DO believe in providing successful reading experiences for kids and helping them feel confident in their reading skills. In my sixth grade classroom, I always had a group of students that were reading at a 3rd or 4th grade level, and of course many were at a 5th grade level and just shy of grade level. (I share a bit more in this post on how I addressed 7+ reading levels in my classroom). One way to build confidence in reluctant readers is by having lots of highly engaging, accessible texts that feel cool to read (because no middle schooler wants to feel forced into reading something that’s developmentally intended for a 2nd grader even when it’s at their reading level). I’ll mention some reading levels below, but keep in mind that reading levels of texts are pretty fluid especially as you exit out of primary levels. I usually see discrepancies in reading levels for the same text if I look at guided reading, lexile, and DRA. It might be that the lexile is a 4th grade level and the Guided Reading is a 5th grade level and the DRA is listed as 6th grade and the overall grade level is 5.2. That doesn’t mean only one of those is accurate; it means that naming one level for a text is difficult. It doesn’t take into consideration interest of a student which can often overcome some difficulties or whether a book has subplot, more complicated themes, different timelines, flashbacks to pay attention to, etc. I am listing these books because they were successful in my classroom with kids who tended to read below grade level. If you need convincing why you should still let students reach out of their instructional level to read in book clubs and independent reading, you can read more here.

Here are some of my favorite Hi-Lo books, authors, genres, and series for struggling readers.

Accessible Authors

My first step would be to build up some authors that are hits with kids. I’ve had a lot of success with the following authors. What’s great about getting a kid hooked on an author is that it can open them up to several books and turn them into a reader with preferences which gives them an identity as a reader.

Jason Reynolds

For high school readers, Long Way Down is a great read that is exactly the promise of these recommendations – engaging and accessible. It is a real winner. The content is definitely more appropriate for an older audience. If you teach middle schoolers, his Track series is fantastic.

Alan Gratz

If you need an engaging historical fiction book, this guy has several titles that will do it for you. I loved Refugee especially, but all of them are great. Kids could definitely reread these books and get more out of them with repeated reads.

Don Brown

I didn’t know about Don Brown until a class I took on YA fiction. He has a few fantastic nonfiction graphic novels: Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, The Great American Dust Bowl, and The Unwanted: Stories of Syrian Refugees. I haven’t read all of his work but those few gave me real hope for his body of work, so check him out.

Roald Dahl

These books are not as contemporary obviously, but the range of reading levels is quite helpful. I had 6th graders who really enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox which is short, funny, and accessible. Many books at a 3rd grade level or so are still at the cusp of being good for a middle schooler. Since these are books that have been around awhile, it’s nice as a teacher to have resources freely available.

Jacqueline Woodson

The more I read of Woodson, the more I love her! Her memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, hooked me. I love her picture books, especially Each Kindness. One that had eluded me that I finally read this past year was Locomotion – I would definitely recommend that one as appropriate for a 5th/6th grader but still more accessible of a read. Some of her pieces would be great for reluctant high schoolers since the content is developmentally there for older readers. If you don’t have several of her books in your library, get on that.

Dan Gutman

He’s funny! His classic series My Weird School is more at a 2nd/3rd grade level but 5th-7th graders enjoy him, too. I admire how he tries to stay relevant to contemporary readers as he’s writing new stuff and he still does TONS of school visits if you’re interested.

Dav Pilkey

I am consistently surprised by the wide popularity of his Dogman series. Middle schoolers find it funny. My 2nd graders were obsessed reading it. Many parents are surprised at how clever some of the jokes are so they’re something kids can reread pretty easily once older even if they read it when they were younger. There are some fantastic reads by Dav Pilkey and while his books may come across as frivolous or fluff reading, they are funny and worth reading.

Kwame Alexander

I’ve gotten to see Kwame Alexander for a visit he did at my school. What I loved about his visit was the musical aspect (there was a guitar played by his co-presenter) and his discussion of the writing process, specifically how much he had to revise and rewrite Crossover to make it the great book it is. I love novels in verse, and his books have turned a bunch of kids who love sports into lovers of poetry. The books are easy to get through but really meaningful and easy to go back and reread slowly to catch more goodness.

Genres to Build Up

Novels in Verse

This links to a longer post about how I used novels in verse in my 6th grade class to build up book clubs and also some of my favorite recommendations.

Graphic Novels

This links to a longer post specifically with 15 recommendations for nonfiction graphic novels. Most I used with my 6th graders although a few (I note in the post) I would save for more mature readers especially because I taught 6th grade in an elementary school and had more restrictions.

Some fiction graphic novels I love include El Deafo by Cece Bell and anything by Raina Telgemeier. I have also enjoyed some modern graphic novel adaptations of books such as The Giver, Little Women, The Golden Compass, and A Wrinkle in Time.

Slam Dunk Series

The reason to get kids hooked on a series is the same reason as you’d like to get them hooked on an author: It helps build their identity as a reader and gives them a sense of their personal preference which can help them later in life as a reader, too. If they can tell a future teacher or librarian what series they liked, that person can work with that!

I Survived…by Lauren Tarshis

These are great books for many grade levels. They are highly engaging texts and great to pair with a history/social studies unit to support students who may need some more background knowledge. These books tend to be about a 3rd grade level.

False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

This is the first book in the Ascendance series which is filled with adventure. It’s great for independent reading or a whole class read aloud with tons of suspense and action. It’s around a 5th grade level, and I found many reluctant readers embrace this book.

City of Ember by Jeanne du Prau

This is the first book in a series that really develops over time. The third book in the series is a prequel that leads up to the dystopian setting. I especially appreciate how this book flips between two main characters, Lina and Doon. The mystery that unfolds throughout the first book is really exciting. I read this series in college by chance and loved it; it’s about a 5th grade level, but pretty accessible. There is also a graphic novel version of the first book, but full disclosure they all told me the traditional novel was better.

Voyagers: Project Alpha by D. J. MacHale

This is an interesting series in that different authors write different books, but they are all connected well. With a science fiction/dystopian premise, kids across the world compete to see who will potentially save the planet by journeying into space. These are pretty accessible books at around a 4th grade level. It’s reminiscent of The Nyxia Triad by Scott Reintgen, which isn’t widely known from what I can tell but is YA Sci-Fi with a space competition to try to save the planet.

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales by Nathan Hale

These graphic novels are all historically based. They are so fun and bring history to life with all of the action and dialogue. If a kid gets hooked on this series, they will have several to go through! (The 11th is coming out this year!) They’re about a 4th grade level and there’s lots of scaffolding due to the graphic novel style.

Narnia by C. S. Lewis

I’d personally start a kid with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe which is often listed as the 3rd in the series. The 1st and 2nd are not as beloved (although I love them personally) and don’t create the same anticipation for sequels.

Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

From the same author as The Hunger Games, Gregor the Overlander is a fun, fantasy series. There’s an element of dystopian theme to this as the world is about to break out into war and the main character starts in New York City, but the fantasy element comes through as he falls through a great into the Underland, thus the name for the series: The Underland Chronicles. This series is leveled for middle grade readers as opposed to Hunger Games which is clearly more targeted for YA audiences.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

These are pretty well beloved in elementary schools and is less mature than many of the other books I’ve listed, but these are funny texts with built in sketches and scaffolds. These are books kids could read later even if they read it when they were younger and get a bit more out of it. It could be fun to encourage a throwback read.

10 More Go To Recommendations

Yes, I have more books for you! These are not parts of series, although a couple have a connected sequel. All of these have proven to me how great they are for my reluctant or struggling middle school readers. They’re great stories in general, so they definitely could be for anyone in your class probably!

House Arrest by K.A. Holt

This is a novel in verse, and it’s fantastic. It emotionally dives into difficult issues: socioeconomic disadvantage, absent dad who abandons them, mom who is working all the time, kid who takes on responsibility for his baby brother, medical bills, jealousy of other kids who have it easier, therapy with a counselor, seeing a parole officer, problems at school, stress as a kid. I know that all sounds heavy, but this book is so well done and has many little funny, sweet moments. You just love the people, or at least I know I did.

Holes by Louis Sachar

This book has been around awhile, and there’s a reason why it’s still being reprinted with new covers and the movie was great. The movie has been out for long enough now that many kids haven’t seen it so I showed it in my class after a book club finished it. It has the engaging mystery, the backstory, the empathy for Zero who can’t read, the unfairness leading towards such satisfying justice…it’s such a good book!

Hidden by Helen Frost

This is another novel in verse, and I’ve looked at a few other Helen Frost books because of this read. This is a short book that basically has two parts. In the first part, a girl, Wren, is accidentally abducted when a man steals her mom’s car. Wren then gets stuck in a garage for a few days but the thief’s daughter, Darra, takes care of Wren. Years later as teens, Darra and Wren meet up at a summer camp. The complicated relationship between these girls is really interesting and keeps you on the edge of your seat. There’s also a fascinatingly clever backstory hidden in Darra’s poems. The last word of each longer line in Darra’s poems spells out an entire other story about her life growing up. Mind blown!

Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen

In this novel, Cole brutally hurts a kid at his school. A restorative justice circle is held and it’s decided that Cole will spend time on this island in Alaska. He has a powerful encounter with a giant bear and slowly (this is not a quick transformation story so it is far more believable) has more realizations about himself and his life. This book really puts some things into perspective for kids and I’ve seen it affect some readers. There is a sequel, but I was not as impressed and it has some language that you should be aware of (I did not suggest it to my 6th graders but I also taught in elementary, so that might give some context).

Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson

The premise of this novel is that a pandemic has killed all of the adults and anyone over 12 (it feels a far more believable premise since COVID, I’ll say), so the kids are taking over. The main character, Lisa, is desperate to take care of her brother, Todd, and make choices that are good in the long run. The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, so I always had kids asking for the next one, but alas, it’s just up to the imagination. I read this a long time ago now, but I still think about it. It’s just a fascinating, action filled book. There is a graphic novel version of this one as well.

The Thief of Always by Clive Barker

This makes for a great read aloud as well as independent reading. This is one of those fantasy stories where the real world is as it is but the fantasy is lurking in the shadows of the real world. The main character, Harvey, ends up at Mr. Hood’s Holiday House which sounds perfect until it’s not, of course. It’s a super fun mysterious adventure tale.

Taking Sides by Gary Soto

I appreciate the dive into uncomfortable feelings related to race, belonging and not belonging, parents who are going through their own dating experiences, and even rivals and teammates on sports teams. It was published nearly 20 years ago now, but it still feels super relevant. The bits of Spanish language give any native Spanish speakers a leg up. I enjoyed seeing them present as experts in a book club that’s mixed.

Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy by Seymour Reit

This is a quick read based on a true story. Emma Edmonds pretends to be a man so that she can participate in the Civil War and become a spy. I love the action of this, and it’s pretty cool to learn about a sliver of history that wouldn’t normally be taught in history class.

One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

This looks like a longer book but since it’s a novel in verse, it has shorter lines and reads much more quickly. I love the voice of the characters in this! The personality is so fun and shines through brightly. One and Only Bob is a sequel and is just as heartwarming. For any kid that loves animals, this is a good read. My reluctant girl readers appreciated this a lot. It’s more at a 3rd grade level.

Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Many people know this book because it’s such a middle grade mystery classic. Mr. Westing has died and is leaving his money to several potential people, but they must play a game to reveal who will inherit, possibly even who is a murderer. This book sticks with people and even though it’s an easier reading level, the action does not disappoint and it is not a childish read.

Hopefully that gave you some new ideas or at least affirmed some of the choices in your own classroom library. I love getting book recommendations. Next to reading, making my “To Read List” is my favorite hobby, so send me all the good books. I also am fairly active on Goodreads if you want to see what I’m currently reading and any of my previous reviews. Happy Reading to ALL readers out there.

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